It bothers me when people criticize our mother after all she’s done for us. I’m talking about our spiritual mother, that is, the church.
What I Owe Mother
I was born providentially in the womb of the church; I was bathed in her baptismal font, nursed by her Sunday school, fed at her table and sat on her lap while singing the songs she sang to me.
She held my hand as I learned to walk by faith, and then to run. She removed the training wheels to accelerate sharing my gifts. Eventually, my mother sent me off to her colleges where I cultivated a Christian worldview.
I owe my spiritual life to her; she formed my faith.
Referring to the church as an “it” strikes me as odd. I find it difficult to relate, let alone feel loyalty to, an inanimate object. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to viewing the church as the living, precious mother of her adopted daughters and sons, like me.
I Didn’t Make This Up
The image of the church as mother is birthed in Scripture (cf. Ps. 48:12–13; Gal. 4:26) and flows beautifully from the images of the bride of Christ and children of God (cf. Rev. 19:7–9; John 1:12). Furthermore, it is deeply embedded in church history.
Even as early as the third century, the church father Cyprian insisted that anyone who refused to claim the church as mother could not claim God as Father. In the sixteenth century, Calvin wrote passionately in his Institutes and Galatians commentary on the wonder of the church as our mother.
The reformer was not theorizing in an academic bubble or describing church in the abstract. Like Paul, he meant your church on the corner, with its preaching and sacraments, elders and deacons, saved sinners, hypocrites and theological rascals—the visible church in all its glory, with all its warts.
What if Mother Is Unfaithful?
When the reformed churches in the Netherlands were in an uproar during World War II, Klaas Schilder used the “church as mother” image to encourage folks to side with the new denomination. Some resisted, saying, “Our church still does so much good.”
According to Schilder, that statement alone exposed a lost cause. He saw this akin to saying, “Our mother still does so much good for us. She keeps a nice house, fixes a good meal and washes our clothes. Never mind she goes around playing the prostitute at night.” As far as Schilder was concerned, the church had forfeited her mothering rights—just as a prostitute would—and as such, deserved a writ of divorce.
Schilder’s rhetoric is powerful—and I like Schilder—but does his reasoning here support his point? Is every imperfect church analogous to an unfaithful wife, stripped of her motherhood?
Certainly your church is less than perfectly faithful and, perhaps, you are discouraged because of it. “Our mother is so flawed,” you lament. But where do you draw the line, and disown her? Perhaps, as Abraham Kuyper concluded, “No one really knows.”
But here’s what we do know to be true: all churches are indeed flawed. Some problems are cultural; others are self-inflicted. Whether we experience conflict over a six-day creation, the theory of common grace, the allowance of female deacons or requiring exclusive psalmody, we can all find reasons to be disappointed in our mother.
You can always find an excuse to judge our mother as unfaithful as she wrestles with the times amid the winds of change.
However, try not to blame mother too quickly because you’re upset about the rough weather. She’ll find a way through the storms, outside and inside, just as Christ’s church has always done and, as Jesus promises, always will (Matt. 16:18).
And it may not be as cloudy as you think.
There’s another way to look at your mother besides focusing on her warts.
Do You See What I See?
I have served as a pastor and a seminary professor, but especially as the director of a reformed prison ministry my eyes have been opened—like a newborn kitten’s, or an old guy’s after cataract surgery—to the value of our mother.
I frequently tell folks that I’m blessed to see the best side of the church every day. In my role, I see thousands in many denominations joyfully and unexpectedly growing in their own faith while discipling prisoners around the world.
I preach in congregations across North America that are shining brightly; these churches are energized, excited and jubilant to carry out their mission the best they can—volunteering in rescue missions, crisis pregnancy centers, thrift stores, disaster relief and urban renewal.
They are faithfully promoting and supporting worthy causes, all the while minding the faith formation of their members, from the cradle to the grave.
An Attitude of Gratitude
As an eyewitness, I observe my mother close-up, as you do. We can probably agree she’s far from perfect, but I for one propose she’s in pretty good shape for the shape she’s in.
That’s why I suggest we dedicate every Sunday as Mother’s Day.
If we have grown at all in our faith under her tutelage, we owe her a thing or two, not the least of which is our respect and love.
Like we would with any good mother, we can rest assured she listens to our concerns, understands our fears and tends to our wounds. God’s children need not throw a tantrum to get their mother’s attention.
The Best Is Yet to Come
After all is said and done, the church is beautiful. You’ll see. Jesus promises that someday soon, He will present His bride, our mother, without spot, wrinkle or warts (Eph. 5:27).
You can bet your life on that narrative.
So let’s treat the church with utmost dignity. After all, should we not honor our Father and our mother? Help make her better, but speak well of her and never forget all she’s done for us.
This article by H. David Schuringa originally appeared in Christian Renewal and is reprinted with permission.